Practicing Thomas Szasz: Continuing the Work of the Philosopher of Liberty

The book, Practicing Thomas Szasz: Continuing the Work of the Philosopher of Liberty, has little to do with practicing Thomas Szasz. Instead, the author John Breeding tries to fit Szasz into his own version of what he thinks Szasz represents – a raised fist to psychiatry.

Unfortunately, Breeding does not understand Szasz and therefore cannot discuss how the work of Szasz influenced his own work. It is peculiar how even admirers of Szasz, such as Breeding, misunderstand so much about what Szasz was talking about. Szasz’s ideas are so contrary to the mental health profession, that most of those who work in the field cannot even hear what he is saying. Szasz has always maintained that he is simply stating that 2 + 2 = 4, but people don’t want to hear the truth. As Szasz often said; “the truth will set you free; but it won’t make you very happy”.

To begin with, Breeding includes a headshot photograph of himself next to a headshot of Szasz. This was a peculiar way to start a book of a philosopher you admire. What message was Breeding sending to his readers by including this photo next to Szasz? Are we to assume that Breeding is on equal footing as a philosopher next to Szasz? Does Breeding believe that it is his task to continue the work of Szasz? Suppose Breeding wrote a book about David Hume, would he include a photo of himself next to Hume? What was Breeding trying to say?


Thomas Szasz and John Breeding side by side

Breeding makes Szasz out to be a sort of freedom fighter for psychiatric liberty. But Szasz was nothing of the sort. Szasz was not an activist. Szasz saw himself as a philosopher, who was engaging with interesting ideas. Breeding likens Szasz to activist Howard Zinn, who wrote a book called, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Szasz was not a freedom fighter or an activist. His writing is more in the same vein of John Stewart Mill, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Voltaire. In an interview for the documentary, The Last Interview of Thomas Szasz, Philip Singer asked Szasz why he wrote so many books.

Singer: Why did you write so many books, what is this all about? Was this just a personal crusade for you? What do you hope to come out of it?

Szasz: No. It’s not a crusade. It’s the luxury of self-expression. I think these are valid interesting ideas. Very much at variance with the prevalent mood of the western world. At the same time right under the surface. Like the English enlightenment. Like David Hume, he is a cultural hero to me. To set out the legitimacy of agnosticism. You know after all agnostics have a legitimate right not to believe in god. I think it should be legitimate not to believe in mental illness. Not to have treatment unless you want it.

For such a title, Practicing Thomas Szasz, Breeding doesn’t tell us much about how he “practices” Thomas Szasz. The closest we get is this:

In terms of counseling, Szasz emphasized relationships and, of course, autonomy and responsibility. While he clearly valued free expression, I think I place more emphasis on emotional release. Most importantly, Szasz wanted to empower individuals, and hated anything that put unnecessary constraints on personal freedom.

Szasz did not want followers, which is why he never advocated any particular techniques or tactics when it came to psychotherapy. Szasz said that therapy was personal for both the therapist and the client. Any type of technique would never be authentic or work. How could a therapist expect a client to be a self-directed, responsible person if the therapist himself could not direct his own therapy session in a way that was self-directed?

Szasz wrote one case study about his treatment with a patient in psychoanalysis, and another book called, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, where he lays out the ground rules for what he considered the ethical practice of psychotherapy. In those rules, Szasz specifically talks about how the client must pay from his own pocket, how the therapist must not interfere with his client’s life outside of the office walls, and how the therapist mustn’t practice with involuntary clients; especially children. Does Breeding talk about any of this? No. Szasz always emphasized that money was extremely important in the therapy relationship, but Breeding doesn’t even mention money. Szasz said that in Freud’s day sex was subverted, but in our day money is. Who pays makes a difference. If the client pays, you know that he is invested in the therapy. If insurance pays, then the therapist becomes an advocate for what the insurance company wants and the client is less invested in the therapy. One cannot “practice Szasz” without talking about money.

Breeding writes:

He helped me reach a vital clarity that allows me to counsel people without being oppressive, and to actively challenge psychiatric oppression in the world.

The above quote doesn’t make any sense from a Szaszian perspective. Szasz emphasized that each person is responsible as a moral agent. Szasz does not allow Breeding to counsel people without being oppressive, only Breeding has the authority to do so. The reader is left to wonder what Breeding meant. Are we to think that the people Breeding counsels are involuntary patients, and yet somehow he can counsel them without being oppressive? Breedings words do not make sense in a voluntary setting. The only way to counsel people without being oppressive is to work with voluntary patients.

Breeding seems to want to take on the role of freedom fighter for the mentally ill and to use Szasz as his muse for doing so. But Szasz believed that people should have the opportunity to access any kind of wacky therapy they wanted, whether it be lobotomy or primal scream therapy. Szasz wrote in Words to the Wise:

In recent decades, the mental health industry has spawned a new specialist: the critic of therapy. His self-appointed role is to condemn drug treatment, or psychotherapy, or both, without acknowledging that there is no mental illness. By selectively criticizing the treatment of mental illness, he validates its reality.

Breeding rallies against electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In doing so, he legitimizes the metaphor of mental illness. The proper way to practice Szasz would be to be against the forced “treatment” with ECT, not to try to ban it outright.

Breeding also has some other strange ideas that I couldn’t help but put in this review. He says at one point:

How different the world might be today if only a handful of people had been sent for psychiatric “treatments,” instead of being tried and sent to jail! Gandhi, Nehru, Sukarno, Castro, Hitler —and of course many others, for example the “freedom riders” in the South —have been sentenced to terms in prison.

Why does Breeding lump Hitler, Castro and Gandhi in the same category? As Szasz’s main task was clear thinking and categorical analysis, Breeding fails on this front as well. It doesn’t make sense to put Hitler in the same sentence as Gandhi. Yes, history would be different if Germany would have lobotomized Hitler, and the better for it. What is Breeding’s point?

Breeding also misses the mark when he talks about Szasz’s belief in a mind-body Cartesian dualism. Szasz never believed in such distinction. In fact, he wrote a whole book about it called, The Meaning of Mind. For Szasz, the mind was a metaphor. There is no mind for Szasz. There are only persons and personal experiences. Mind is a verb, not a noun for Szasz. We can mind, but there is not a mind. Mind is something that we do, not ghost-like substance that the brain secretes.

I think Breeding made a decent attempt to try to understand Szasz within the context of Breeding’s own life. Breeding sees himself as an activist freedom fighter and wants someone as smart as Szasz on his side. But I don’t think that Breeding did his research. If you are interested in the ideas of Szasz pick up one of his many books. You will be delighted by Szasz’s clear thinking and readability. I’d recommend starting with one of his books of aphorism such as Words to the Wise. One quote from Breeding I can agree with is: “reading Szasz is one of the best techniques for enhancing one’s ability to think clearly – period.”

2 thoughts on “Practicing Thomas Szasz: Continuing the Work of the Philosopher of Liberty

  1. Great review. You really understand the work of Dr. Szasz. His detractors pose no threat to his work. It’s his supposed supporters that can actually harm his work by tricking people into thinking they are carrying on his legacy. Actually, Jeffrey Schaler (and some others) are trying to keep Szasz’s work alive.

    Liked by 1 person

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